Free-Range Is Not the Answer

After my last post, The Vegan Solution, there were several comments by readers indicating that ‘grass-fed’ or ‘pasture-raised’ beef was considered a viable solution to the problems of intensive animal farming. For various reasons, it seemed to me that free-range farming couldn’t provide a realistic solution to the many issues associated with the animal-based diet, including the well-documented environmental devastation that is beginning to be brought into the view of the general public.

There is significant evidence that the environmental destruction which occurs as a result of the wide-spread grazing of cattle, is much worse than the free-range PR leads us to believe. Grazing cattle pollutes water, erodes topsoil, kills fish, displaces wildlife, and destroys vegetation, more so than any other land use.1

In recent years, grazing animals have all but disappeared from sight on the landscape. This has occurred as a result of modern ‘agricultural’ practices that include intensive confinement of animals in factory farms that have become the focus of much criticism from advocates of animal welfare. But a return to widespread free-range grazing, especially as the human population continues to increase, would mean a return to the widespread damage that this grazing wrought on the land not so long ago. Following is an excerpt from a speech given in 1985, almost twenty-five years ago. The speaker is Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, addressing cattlemen at the University of Montana.

“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.”

John Robbins is the author of the international bestseller Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution, and Healthy at 100. He is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on the dietary link with the environment and health. He is also the Founder of EarthSave International.

According to Robbins: “The price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is hard to exaggerate… widespread production of grass-fed beef would only multiply this already devastating toll.”

One of the problems is the sheer scale of the animal industry. The issue that leads me to question the benefits of free-range farming isn’t only the matter of more humane treatment, (which is grossly overstated, as explained below), but the matter of space. In order to farm enough animals to feed the collective appetite for flesh and other products of animal exploitation, we are already destroying our wild lands at a rate that is boggling to the mind. Since we have so many food animals intensely confined, it would be impossible to allocate sufficient land to pasture-raise them all. Without a significant reduction in the overall consumption of animal products, animal farming (free-range or not) is not an ecologically viable method of food production.

Robbins explains: “It takes a long time and a lot of grassland to raise a grass-fed steer. Western rangelands are vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain America’s 100 million head of cattle. There is no way that grass-fed beef can begin to feed the meat appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger.”

Most environmentally-aware people are now familiar with the correlation between intensive animal farming and greenhouse gases. But that problem wouldn’t be solved by pasture-raising cows either:

“Next to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate is methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising even faster. The primary reason that concentrations of atmospheric methane are now triple what they were when they began rising a century ago is beef production. Cattle raised on pasture actually produce more methane than feedlot animals, on a per-cow basis.”2

According to an article on, Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia says:

“We do see significant differences in the greenhouse gas intensities [of grass vs grain]. It’s roughly on the order of 50 percent higher in grass-finished systems.”3

Another serious concern, of which many people aren’t aware, is that commercial free-range grazing involves the eradication of wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.

“The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry… In 1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”4

According to a USDA website, Wildlife Services “provides Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts and create a balance that allows people and wildlife to coexist peacefully.”

According to John Robbins:

“What ‘Wildlife Services’ actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In ‘denning’ wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.

“Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services agents include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species.

“All told, Wildlife Services, the federal agency whose motto is ‘Living with Wildlife,’ intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This is done, of course, at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of ranchers who wish to use public lands to graze their livestock.”

Dr. Mike Hudak is an environmental advocate who is a leading expert on the harm to wildlife and the environment caused by public-lands ranching. He is the founder and director of Public Lands Without Livestock, and the author of Western Turf Wars: The Politics of Public Lands Ranching (2007). Since July 2008 he has been chair of the Sierra Club’s National Grazing Committee.
In his article, Public Lands Ranching: The Scourge of Wildlife, Hudak elaborates:

“How extensive is the carnage that ranching inflicts on wildlife? One reasonable measure is the number of affected species that are either (1) federally listed as threatened or endangered, (2) candidates for federal listing, or (3) the subject of petitions for federal listing. By that criterion, ranching’s victims number 151 species in all: 26 species of mammals, 25 species of birds, 66 species of fish, 14 species of reptiles and amphibians, 15 species of mollusks, and 5 species of insects.”

As we can see, the growing popularity of ‘grass-fed’, ‘pasture-raised’ or ‘free-range’ beef, far from being the solution to the damage caused by animal farming, represents just another side of the devastation caused by the animal industry.

Those who profit from the promotion of free-range animal products exploit the ethical motivation of conscious consumers, caring people who rightfully abhor the horrific practices that occur on factory farms. The free-range PR creates the false impression that consuming free-range products is an effective way of boycotting animal cruelty and environmental destruction.

The desire to avoid participating in acts of cruelty is the other (perhaps more common) reason that many choose free-range over factory-farmed animal products. But are grass-fed cows really treated more humanely than their factory-farmed counterparts?

As John Robbins concludes:

“The lives of grass-fed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just as terrifying and cruel. If they are taken to a conventional slaughterhouse, they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be skinned while alive and fully conscious, and just as apt to be butchered and have their feet cut off while they are still breathing — distressing realities that tragically occur every hour in meat-packing plants nationwide. Confronting the brutal realities of modern slaughterhouses can be a harsh reminder that those who contemplate only the pastoral image of cattle patiently foraging do not see the whole picture.”

In light of this information, and the questions that arise as a result, I am very curious to hear from advocates of environmental conservation or animal welfare who believe that ‘free-range’ or ‘pasture-fed’ is indeed an ethical or sustainable alternative to factory farming. Is it really ‘grass-fed’ that is going to make the difference that we need? At a time when the human population is approaching seven billion, is it realistic to expect to continue feeding ourselves on animal flesh, milk and eggs? Or do we need to make preparations for a future where there simply aren’t sufficient resources to support the inefficient methods of animal-based food production?

For those who seek a way to avoid exploitation and cruelty, the choice doesn’t have to be between factory-farmed and free-range. There is another option, a truly ethical alternative that does not require us to sacrifice our moral standards for the satisfaction of our appetites and our taste buds.

As can be seen by the growing number of people, from all walks of life world-wide, who abstain from animal foods, it’s really a lot easier than many people think. The essential first step toward the vegan alternative is a change in perception. Once that is achieved, with the wealth of information and the ever-increasing number of products that are now available, making vegan choices is easier, and more rewarding than it has ever been.

(For more information about how to make vegan choices, feel free to contact the author.)

1 Robbins, John What About Grass-fed Beef?
2 Robbins
3 Raloff, Janet The carbon footprints of raising livestock for food
4 Robbins



Rosemary H.
Rosemary H2 years ago

Join a six-year-old discussion - later maybe.... ....................................................................................However I see this "Wow, great posts Meredith D., Sir Walk F., Juan T., and Lisa B. :) I have to agree. You guys have great points. I've learned a lot."

Yes.... more later......

Tamera Dolcini
Tamera Dolcini3 years ago

There is a viable place for cattle in our world. It is clearly spelled out within the Vedic Scriptures. But, so long as the prevailing culture of the world insists on eating the flesh of animals, so long as governments like the US label persons that advocate for animal rights and animal protection as terrorists, there is little chance that factory farms will disappear.

I am a Vaishnavi, otherwise known as a Hare Krishna. I eat a lacto-vegetarian diet, which has been laid out within the Vedic Scriptures and is stated to be the only diet fit for mankind. As a former LVN, I know that the diet prescribed within the Vedic Scriptures is sound and maintainable without the need for supplements. It has been over 20 years since I turned my back on eating meat and meat products, and I have no regrets. Nor do I feel inclined to change my diet.

There are a number of Vedic Community Farms which have been set up around the world. There, my fellow Vaishnavas live simple lives and their cattle are a major part of maintaining the community. The cows, of course, provide milk. But their offspring remain with them. Each morning, young boys take the calves to graze while their mothers are milked. Thus, the cows produces sufficient milk to meet the needs of the community and their offspring. Bullocks provide the means to plow the fields as well as transportation within the community.

This is only possible because these Vaishnavas are willing to leave behind the insanity of the world and d

Will T.
will T7 years ago

Thanks, Angel, for another excellent article. Your points are extremely pertinent. I travel throughout the U.S. continuously, in all 48 states and I see first- hand the utter devastation that "free-range" cattle have on the land and water, and the killing of wildlife. Factory-farms are of course basically even worse.

The thing that I think has to be understood is that no one who eats animal-sourced foods ever makes that decision freely. All of us have been forced into it from birth by a culture that has war, exploitation, and domination of the feminine at its living core, and this is why people eat animal foods, and are afraid to change. The forces are enormous, and come from every angle.

Thanks to everyone for making the effort to engage in this conversation. I believe there is nothing more important than this to talk about. If we cannot change our essential violence toward other living beings in the routine miser we inflict on animals for food, our efforts for peace, justice, and equality in our own relations are merely ironic and doomed to certain failure.

Animals are in our hands - they cannot retaliate, and just take whatever violence and horror we force onto them. Our violence always retaliates, though - as disease and disconnectedness and inter-personal violence and general unhappiness.

Going vegan is the absolutely most liberating, positive, and helpful action that anyone in this culture can take. Do it not for yourself, but for others. You'll see!


Kirsten G.
Kirsten G8 years ago

Wow, great posts Meredith D., Sir Walk F., Juan T., and Lisa B. :) I have to agree. You guys have great points. I've learned a lot.

Sir Walk F.
Sir Walk F8 years ago

It must be interesting living in the comfort of moral superiority and absolutes that some of the Animal Rights folks live in.

You sure you get to feel good about your self and your ideas, always discussing how things 'should be' without any clear path from here and now to there.

Meredith D.
Meredith D8 years ago

Plus, somehow this discussion seems to have gone WAY off track from environmental issues. I'm seeing Bible quotes and vegan morality issues and all sorts of things...except the actual topic of the blog. I just feel like there are so many good things we could be doing for the environment instead of wasting time arguing with people who will never agree with you. Especially if you're nasty to them. And some of the vegans...dude, I sympathize with your cause and eat mostly vegetarian myself, but there have been come really, really nasty posts. I wish we could be civil to each other, stay on topic, and work together to think of the many, many ways we could make changes, big or small, to help make things better for the environment. If we're going to argue morality for 500 posts it should really happen on an animal rights blog. It's hard to weed through all those angry comments and find the environmental stuff.

Meredith D.
Meredith D8 years ago

Why is it so awful to use land for cattle or other free-range animals? People in this country are ripping down the forests and building McMansions left and right. If we would encourage urban renewal there would be plenty of land to use for free-range livestock, as well as plenty of land that is livestock-free. If we could stop population growth or at least stop suburban sprawl, we could have environmentally safe free-range livestock and safe natural environment. People will still have to drastically reduce meat consumption, but they should be reducing ALL food consumption. Americans eat WAY too much food, and throw away way too much food. I know people who refuse to eat leftovers, and just throw the food away. You don't have to go vegan if you just reduce all of your consumption. It makes just as big of a difference if you eat less food (therefore less meat) and are also buying less of everything (clothes, shoes, food, random household crap.) Think about how much land is wasted on and ruined by cotton production. If we started producing hemp in America, we can use our land better than for cotton production anyway. Plus hemp clothing lasts much longer than the stuff most people wear, especially the crap we import from China, which causes a lot of pollution. There are numerous ways to include free-range food AND vegetarian/vegan lifestyles, among other lifestyle changes, that would help our environment. Free-range alone isn't the answer, but neither is going vegan.

Jane Tania
Jane Tania8 years ago

Lisa ,
I was actually answering to "ROBERTA C" An the usual idealised version that all animals are slaughtered humanely an do not suffer and that anything other than that is "LIES".
I do however agree with you that animal welfare should be on the animal welfare forum but i only answered the thread ...
However my comments are not the "extreme" in the slaughterhouse they are the "norm" .You will find "John Robins" made the same comments regarding slaughterhouses.By all means disagree but do not dismiss the facts laid out as extreme until you have followed up on them please.The sheer amount of animals falling into the foodchain is vast beyond comprehension some meat processing plants can slaughter up to 10,000 chickens an hour !!!The volume of the animals needed to feed the human need for meat takes up considerable resourses however keeping them in "factory" style farms is inexcusable an akin to torture on a monumental scale.
I agree the world can not continue to sustain humans at the rate we are consuming the planet and that somethin needs to be done is a fact.I agree that reduction in meat consumption an so reduction in production not because i am anti meat eaters but because the health of the human race and the planet is struggling under the comsume now ,worry later attitude we seem to have adopted in all aspects of our lives.I think very few of the things we take for granted are indefinatley sustainable an again the human race in general ingnore these facts ...

Lisa B.
Lisa B8 years ago

Jane, no-one here is arguing for the inhumane treatment of animals. No-one. The examples given are the extreme examples. But that doesn’t mean that all animal products have to be produced in that way. I am also not sure what the relevance of animal welfare is for an opinion piece posted in the environment section. Sure it is something that should concern us, but the discussion on animal welfare should be happening in the animal welfare section.

The US can’t support the amount of animal products it produces sustainably. And free-range animals take up more land. OK. So why is abstinence the only solution? Wouldn’t reduction also work?

In the US, wildlife predators have been reduced to allow for farming domestic animals. OK. So what about the rest of the world? Or hunting wild meat?

Some land isn’t suitable for agriculture, so how are we going to feed the current population with the resources we have?

Jane Tania
Jane Tania8 years ago

I would also like to add some more fact's check out AGRIPROCESSORS in IOWA if your unclear as to whether there are inhumane welfare issues in the USA and the fact is that there are no LAWS only GUIDELINES on animal welfare at point of slaughter !!!
I know your going to take this as an attack but i feel so strongly about this issue hence the fact i have read stuff an seen stuff that keeps me up at night !! Its not just the factory farming an its comendable your eat locally produced animals but FREE RANGE or FACTORY they usually end up in the same slaughterhouse/Abitoir(abitoir means to strike down in french)This means suffering in the ways previously explained .I ran out of room they are then plunged into the Boiling water to make their skin/hide/feathes easier to remove quite often whilst still alive !! In humans these methods are described as torture connected to an electrical charge throat cut an boiled to make your skin peel !! Thats a horriffic death by anyones standards !! I just wish people like youselves didnt poo poo the things they find offensive and took the trouble to find out the facts however distasteful they may be .
I am not saying you shouldnt eat meat because i know that people feel that they need it.I am just saying lets speak out and make the HUMANE methods that we all fool ourselves with are enforced an it puts an end to this very INHUMANE highly unprincipled practice .Make fines an the chance of losing your license a real threat !!! PLEASE HELP THEM !!